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University center expected to improve skills

August 02, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

To build a better-educated population - and improve the quality of jobs - leaders in Washington County have mobilized to launch a university center, upgrade public schools and offer more training opportunities.

National experts said all are good strategies, but they cautioned that they are steps whose success will be measured in decades, not years.

Meanwhile, county educators continue to plug away at what they consider a vexing pair of challenges: how to get students to continue their education past high school and how to convince them to come home once they do.

A decade after former Schools Superintendent Wayne F. Gersen made the issue a priority, the county sill lags behind the state in numbers of students going on to college.

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Current Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett Jr. said bringing that number up remains a goal, along with improving SAT scores.

"We're not interested in bumps from year to year. We want the line to move in a very positive direction upward," he said.

Bartlett said school officials recognize that college is not the best option for all students. But he predicted that college-educated employees are going to play an increasingly prominent role in the new economy.

"With the information revolution that's going on, that expertise is going up," he said. "If we're going to improve the kind of jobs in this county, one of the first things we have to improve is the schools."

New college

For years, the county's movers and shakers have lamented that Washington County does not have a four-year college. So it was with much enthusiasm that politicians announced a plan this year to build a University System of Maryland center here.

The center will offer third- and fourth-year classes from colleges in the state's university system and will confer bachelor's degrees.

"Having a four-year college here really will attract companies," said Thomas B. Riford, the marketing director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

But national experts caution that the university is a long-term move that is not likely to pay dividends for years.

"I think it's (the benefit) far exceeding a decade," said J. Michael Mullis, a consultant who helps businesses select locations for expansions.

Kate McEnroe, a site location consultant in Georgia said building a four-year college is a long-term step.

"It's not going to change those statistics in 10 years, but it's something you can point to as a source of labor."

Paul Gottlieb, an adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland said it is important that colleges offer more than classes.

Rural areas with established colleges have an easier time attracting high-end businesses because of the cultural amenities a university offers.

Many Washington County graduates who get college degrees never return.

Some leave for opportunities in new places, but county leaders acknowledge that there are few options here for them.

That is something local leaders hope to stem with the University System of Maryland center. Instead of transferring to a college out of the county or out of state, Hagerstown Community College students will be able to get a bachelor's degree without leaving home.

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